Editor’s Note: Recently, Jessie Little Feather and Sherry have hit a rough patch due to serious medical difficulties. Click here to find out more or to give to the GoFundMe campaign.
Images and Story by Joey Phoenix
Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Sherry Gagne (they/she, Metis, Abenaki, Mohawk, Algonquin, Choctaw – Board Member for North Shore Pride), Makademakwa Ikwe (Odawa, Potawatomi, and Metis), and Jessie Little Feather (she/they – White Mountain Apache and Navajo), three Two-Spirited individuals living in New England who have formed a small chosen queer Two Spirit community. You can read that in-depth interview here.
A short while after the interview, Jessie Little Feather and Sherry Gagne reached back out to let me know that there was more that Jessie wanted to say specifically about the Two Spirit experience, especially in regard to what it means as a role within Native communities. Honored by the vulnerability of this offer, I drove to Providence, Rhode Island to meet up with them, talk to them more about this, and photograph both she and Sherry together for the piece.
What does it mean to be Two Spirit?
In this video, sent to me by Jessie Little Feather, Geo Neptune describes the concept of what Two Spirit means, with the disclaimer that the role is different for each individual Nation. Native peoples are not a monolithic entity, so while there are some similarities between Indigenous Nations, it’s important not to assume crossover between them. Do your research.
The definition of Two Spirit as described in this article can be attributed to some of the traditions of the White Mountain Apache, Navajo, and Metis Nations.
Editorial Note: As a white person in a white led-organization, this interview is transcribed below as it was given with only short edits for clarity. The text has been approved by the interviewees for correctness in representation. Also note that the recording of the conversation begins a bit after the beginning of the discussion, so a leading question has been provided for context.
What it Means to be Two Spirit, as told by Jessie Little Feather and Sherry Gagne
[Leading question off recording] – do you feel seen or represented in your New England community?
Jessie Little Feather: As a Native person in this country I feel like I’m a part of the background. Because I’m not white or black or Asian or Mexican I’m in the back and invisible. And that plus the fact that I’m gay just makes it even more so.
Sherry Gagne: People see us more as a novelty. Most people will say to me, you’re Native American. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who’s Native American. People still think of us as being a rarity and that we’re all out west or that we don’t exist or there aren’t many of us anymore.
Jessie Little Feather: When I’ve told people that 100% Native American – Navajo and White Mountain Apache, people have told me that there are no 100% Native Americans.
Sherry Gagne: Meanwhile people are hanging dreamcatchers on their car rearview mirror.
Jessie Little Feather: Dreamcatchers bought in China, most likely.
Sherry Gagne: They just don’t seem to take it seriously that our culture is alive and real and right here and we’re living it everyday.
Joey Phoenix: I watched the video you sent about Two Spirit culture [Editor’s note, see video above]. And I would love to hear more about Two Spirit as a role in your culture and not just a LGBTQ label if you’re comfortable talking about what it means to the Navajo, White Mountain Apache, and Metis Nations. What is the role of the Two Spirit in Indigenous communities?
Jessie Little Feather: These are special individuals groomed to the role of Two Spirit in their communities. Many of them also became chiefs, medicine people – it was an honor to be that. They were thought of so highly in their Nations and their Tribes. It’s not just that you’re Native or gay, it’s that there’s also a special gift in you and people really see and feel that energy. It’s traditional, It’s spiritual…
Sherry Gagne: My understanding is that different Native cultures describe different roles to Two Spirit individuals. They could be expected or looked to to be a warrior in the tribe, a medicine man or medicine person could be the fire keeper. They’re looked to for spiritual guidance. Some of them also stay back to perform important dual roles like babysitting the children and guarding the house during hunting. They can fulfill any role, stereotypically, either male or female, and they’re thought of to be teachers and spiritual guides, because they’re closest to the Great Spirit.
Joey Phoenix: It seems like there’s a sense of being at the crossroads and holding space at the crossroads between many different ways of being: man, woman, life, death, peace, war. It seems that Two Spirit people have all these different kinds of humans and spirits in them, if I’m understanding correctly. I would love to hear more about when you both knew or when you were called to be a Two Spirit both in this role and as a gender expression.
Jessie Little Feather: I didn’t know about Two Spirit as an idea until later on in life, not until my 30s or early 40s. I never knew there was anything like that for Native Americans. But when I did learn of it it just made sense. Ever since I was young I always knew what people were going to say next. And I told my adoptive father, who said that I shouldn’t tell anyone because they would think I was crazy.
But when I found my biological family, I found out that my Mother’s side is a long line of Medicine people. And my grandfather, Renzi Gordon, was a well known medicine man in the White Mountain Apache Nation. And for me it was like, there it is! There’s my heritage. I’m not crazy.
I have a 29 year old son now and he has it too. So I know I have this gift, and I would like to learn more about it, to work on that part myself. Because I believe that if I had grown up in my Nation and hadn’t been adopted, and the English had never come, I probably would’ve been chosen. But for now, I choose it for myself.
Joey Phoenix: Do you feel like this clairvoyance is a responsibility, an opportunity, or a bit of both, or something else entirely?
Jessie Little Feather: It’s still a big question mark for me, because I’m just learning about that part of myself, and I need to be more educated about that. I’m also not the kind of person that would go on my own to take on the role of medicine person, but rather as an educator, and really educating people of who I am, what is the spirituality of my people, and that we, Two Spirit people are here, and queer.
Joey Phoenix: So what I’m hearing is that because of colonialism, the role that you most likely would’ve had officially, had you not been separated from your biological family, you are actually still taking on that role in doing the work of educating white people, which seems to have been foisted upon you. How do you feel about that? You could keep it all to yourself, you don’t have to educate anybody. Why do you want to?
Jessie Little Feather: Non-Natives are ignorant. And when people do something or say something racist against us, I feel like I need to stand my ground and say no, this is not how we act. And when on TV sports teams are putting on headdress and red paint and the tomahawk chant or whatever, I just have to say something. I just have to say, this isn’t who we are, this isn’t what we do.
Joey Phoenix: So it sounds like you feel like you have to?
Jessie Little Feather: I mean, yeah, I do, because of the ignorance of people. People don’t often see their behaviors as racist. I’m used to it, I grew up in a very white, non-Native town (Sturbridge) and had to deal with it. I’ve learned that if I don’t speak up or say something, they’re going to keep doing the thing. And at least if I say something they might not.
Joey Phoenix: I feel like personally the burden shouldn’t be on you. And, I hope, allies will read this…How can allies support you as a Two Spirit?
Jessie Little Feather: I think as a start people should go to a public Powwow. A lot of people don’t know what a Powwow is. It’s a Native American gathering with drumming, dancing, food…come to a Powwow, learn about Native American spirituality and our traditions and sit down and listen. Ask questions, and see who we are. What you see on TV is not who we are. Come and see it and educate yourself.
Joey Phoenix: What are some 101 no-nos for being good allies to Native people?
Jessie Little Feather: Don’t wear head bonnets (headdresses), don’t wear a Native American outfit for Halloween. That right there is racist. Don’t make any sounds that you think that we make. Just don’t do it.
Joey Phoenix: What questions would you wish more people asked you rather than the terrible questions they do ask you?
Jessie Little Feather: Ask me about me. Ask me about my Nations, about the White Mountain Apache Nation and the Navajo Nation. Ask me about my traditions, our ceremonies, and celebrations.
Joey Phoenix: I would like to counsel people on how not to be an asshole. And I feel like there’s a lot of casual racism that people just aren’t aware of. I grew up in the Midwest, in Illinois, and the University of Illinois’s mascot was the Fighting Illini (Editor’s note: It has since been changed to the belted kingfisher). And I grew up in a white culture where a lot of people went to these games and did all the things you were just talking about, and I saw it and did it myself growing up. It was weird to me at the time, but now I know how objectively awful it was.
And I don’t want you to be the only one saying “please don’t do that.” I want to help. And I want this interview to sort of bridge the gap because, I know you want to teach, I want you to have opportunities to talk about your culture and say what’s important to you without you having to respond and educate the people who are just being assholes to you. I want you to have freedom to talk about the depth and complexities of your heritage, without you having to be like – this is how to be a decent human being 101.
Jessie Little Feather: I’m part of a group called the Two Spirit Society, and they have them all over – in New York, in Montana, and I’m thinking about starting a local chapter here in Rhode Island. So if there are any other Two Spirit people out there, in college or whatever, here we are.
Let’s get together!
If you are interested in being part of Jessie’s Two Spirit Society, please firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject Two Spirit Society to be connected.
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